The more I reflect on the 23 impressive years of the Montreal Protocol, the more I realize what far-reaching lessons it holds for the global environment agreements of today. The crises facing us at the end of the first decade of the 21st century require action on an even greater scale than the world's commendable response to the ozone-depletion emergency. The Montreal Protocol transformed a potential catastrophe into a golden economic opportunity. Having listened to the sound and fury of the international climate talks, the ozone messages are worth noting.
The intense reverberations: The Montreal Protocol is not simply a multilateral global accord designed to get rid of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). To define it like that would be to describe the telescope simply as a tube with a lens on each end. As Nobel Laureate, Mario Molina has said, "The Montreal Protocol is widely considered the most successful environmental treaty, phasing out almost 100 ozone-depleting chemicals by 97 per cent and placing the ozone layer on the path to recovery by mid-century. It also is the most successful climate treaty to date, because chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and most other ozone depleting substances (ODS) that it has phased out are powerful GHGs."
The high octane notes: In addition to reducing global consumption of ODS by 97 per cent, the Montreal Protocol lowered greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 135 gigatonnes of CO2 during the period 1990-2010. This can be translated to 11 gigatonnes a year, four to five times the reductions targeted in the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. This unprecedented achievement is even more remarkable given that global GHG emissions have increased by more than 35 per cent since 1990. The new resonating tunes: In phasing out the vast majority of ODS, the Protocol has created new employment opportunities in fields such as recycling, retrofitting, containment and best practices, as well as the implementation of energy standards and labelling. A wave of technological innovation has benefited developing-country enterprises, which have been able to upgrade their production lines and deploy the latest energy and resource efficient technologies. Countries like China have been able to phase out not only ODS but also their inefficient enterprises, enabling industrial rationalization and the achievement of an economy of scale.
The ricocheting waves: Now the ozone layer is well on the path to recovery, phytoplankton, the bedrock of many marine ecosystems, are now much better protected from harmful UV radiation. Elimination of methyl bromide has not only safeguarded the bacteria that are essential for soil productivity but has also protected farmers from exposure to a carcinogenic substance. The foundations on which biodiversity flourishes are now better secured.
Distant thunder: While the Montreal Protocol has achieved much of what it set out to do, it still has some weighty challenges ahead. The 2005 IPCC/TE AP Special Report on Ozone and Climate, of which I was a coordinating lead author, exposed some alarming trends:
- Destruction of ODS banks: The 21 Gt CO2 Eq contained in old equipment will inevitably seep into the atmosphere in the absence of any significant destruction effort. The international community has shown how to bail out financial banks, it now
needs to focus on ODS banks.
- Absence of low-GWP alternatives across certain subsectors: The pace of development of low-GWP alternatives is not keeping up with the accelerated HCFC phase-out schedule for developing countries. Many countries may have no choice but to transition to high-GWP HFCs to meet their HCFC commitments in the near term. This is particularly true in the refrigeration and air-conditioning sector.
- Growth of HFCs: The projected growth of HFCs in a business-as-usual scenarios is alarming. Forecasts indicate that the share of HFCs in the global fluorocarbon market will jump from 35 per cent in 2008 to 58 per cent in 2018. The 900,000 tonnes that will make up annual global HFC demand in 2018 is equivalent to over 2 Gt CO2-eq.
The 2005 IPCC/TE AP report makes clear that if high-GWP HFCs become the primary replacements to HCFCs, then by 2050 the Montreal Protocol will become a net and significant contributor to climate change:
The wake-up call: Today, that distant thunder is a storm at our doorstep. The reputation of the Montreal Protocol is at stake. Without immediate action to address these challenges and strengthen the treaty, the Protocol is in danger of becoming a liability to the global commons. Stasis could result in the Montreal Protocol being responsible for the emission of 130-190 Gt CO2-eq. (Velders et al. 2009 estimates of HFC emissions + ODS Banks). If we consider the reduced energy efficiency in refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment and appliances, this figure would be much higher.
While we are justified in celebrating the success of the Montreal Protocol so far, this is certainly no time to snooze.